The Decade’s 25 Most-Essential Foreign Films

Movies Lists

Say what you will about the current state of American cinema, but there is one truth film-lovers can hold to be self-evident: Year after year, most many of the best films are imports from countries across the world. These are the kinds of films that typically yield critical kudos but struggle to find footing in the U.S. marketplace. Luckily, anything and everything is available to discover on DVD. This list sifts through the hundreds of worthy titles since 2000 to the bare-bones minimum of 25. Before you cry foul, wolf, or hey where’s [insert foreign film title here], this is by no means an exhaustive list. Think of it like so: If you were to tell someone who has not seen a single foreign film this decade what to watch, these would be the best 25 titles to start with. The must-see’s. The most-essential:

25. Maria Full of Grace (Colombia, 2004)
First-time Colombian actress Catalina Sandino Moreno earned a richly deserved Oscar nomination for her startling portrayal of a restless woman who willingly becomes a drug mule. After she swallows 62 cocaine-filled pellets and departs for America, she finds her world slowly unraveling around her. Shot from an almost documentary-like perspective, Maria Full of Grace is at turns shocking and absolutely heartbreaking.

24. Persepolis (France, 2007)
Lovingly adapted from Marjane Satrapi’s celebrated graphic novels, and lavishly animated in a sleek black-and-white palette, Persepolis is that uncommon thing in cinema: an animated film for adults. The luminosity of Satrapi’s autobiographical tale is on full display, from a child’s innocence lost to falling in love for the first time, all backdropped against the turbulence of the Iranian Revolution. Make it a back-to-back feature with last year’s terrific Waltz with Bashir to see the definitions of animation break through every boundary.

23. Volver (Spain, 2006)
Pedro Almodovar coaxes such great performances out of Penelope Cruz, they should always work together. Almodovar’s muse is in rare form in Volver, an affable, lighthearted film with just the right balance of whimsy and emotional heft. A comic-mystery about two sisters who discover someone from their past may still be living, Cruz dominates every inch of the screen with her commanding, soulful performance.

22. Let the Right One In (Sweden, 2008)
Vampire stories are plastered all over American pop culture these days (True Blood, Twilight, this fall’s The Vampire Diaries), but leave it to the Swedes to produce a vampire film that manages to be both sweet and frightening. The friendship between Oskar, a scrawny, 12-year-old outcast, and Eli, a centuries-old vampire frozen in the body of a child, is a chilling but beautiful story to behold. Rumor has it an American remake is forthcoming, but there’s simply to perfect what’s already been perfected.

21. Oldboy (South Korea, 2003)
Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy is a mind-trip like no other, not to mention so violent it puts Quentin Tarantino’s flicks to shame. The film’s setup: a man thirsts for revenge and answers after he is held prisoner in a hotel room for 15 years, without ever knowing why. As the story movies from one bloody rampage to another, the film’s daring audacity gives away to a beating heart behind the madness. Packing a potent psychological punch, Oldboy is in a category all its own.

20. Gomorrah (Italy, 2008)
Gritty like The Godfather or the work of Martin Scorsese, Gomorrah depicts five microcosmic stories of the brutal underground mafia scene in Naples. The cast of largely untrained actors only enhances the film’s grim authenticity, and that authenticity is bolstered by the fact that the film’s source material, the bestselling book of same name, required author Roberto Saviano to get a permanent police escort. Harrowing in its matter-of-factness, the Academy criminally overlooked one of 2008’s best by not nominating it for Best Foreign Film.

19. Downfall (Germany, 2005)
Playing Adolf Hitler is one of the trickiest roles imaginable for an actor, which is just one reason why Bruno Ganz’s domineering performance as the iconic Fuhrer is so remarkable to behold. Detailing the final 12 days of Hitler’s life secluded away in a bunker in Berlin, Downfall depicts the true madness of a man drunk on power and relentless in his sinister convictions. Ganz’s three-dimensional, near-humanizing portrayal is nothing short of astonishing. The same can be said for the film itself.

18. Paradise Now (Palestine, 2005)
Superbly tackling what is perhaps the most difficult subject matter for American audiences in recent years, Paradise Now traces the journey of two Palestinian childhood best friends who in adulthood become suicide bombers. For all of its sensitivity, the film never judges these characters, and instead understands them as people, where they come from and how they fell into the situation. The powerful but ambiguous ending further cements the film’s status as a terrific conversation-starter.

17. Yesterday (South Africa, 2004)
Forget the overrated Tsotsi. This is the definitive film from South Africa this decade. An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Film, Yesterday is a gut-wrenching story about an everyday mother who contracts HIV from her philandering husband. Resigned to her fate, she resolves herself to live to see the day of her daughter’s first day of school. Brimming with raw emotions and power, this Zulu-language film puts a human face on a terrible disease that still threatens the lives of so many.

16. The Class (France, 2008)
Shot with a documentary-style honesty, The Class stars real-life teacher/novelist Francois Begaudeau as a bleeding heart who thrives on connecting to each and every one of his students. Students who, of course, aren’t interested in learning. Meanwhile, he’s constantly butting heads with the school faculty, who prefer uniformly authoritative rules for each and every situation. The Class is essentially a microscopic view of chaos, not to mention an utterly fascinating glimpse into the daily experience of teachers everywhere, no matter the country.

15. Nobody Knows (Japan, 2004)
Based on a true story, Nobody Knows is about three young Japanese siblings who are forced to fend for themselves after their mother abandons them. For a while, they survive (and indeed, thrive). But once it becomes apparent she isn’t coming back, their lonely, isolated lives start to crumble into grief and tragedy. As Nobody Knows delves further into the odyssey of these children’s lives, it becomes a harrowing experience not to be missed.

14. The Best of Youth (Italy, 2005)
If you’re patient enough to sit through a six-hour movie, The Best of Youth is an epic family saga that manages to feel rather intimate. The film is largely a snapshot into the diverging lives of two Italian brothers from their childhood in the ‘60s to old age and retirement in the ‘00s. The brothers fall in and out of love until a terrible tragedy changes them both forever. The touching film is an immensely rewarding cinematic experience, worth every minute of its lengthy run time.

13. Y Tu Mama Tambien (Mexico, 2001)
A road trip along the coast of Mexico turns out to be one of sexual discovery for two punk teenagers (Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna). Meanwhile, the trip turns out to be the bittersweet final adventure for their older female companion (Maribel Verdu), as she struggles with a life full of regret and roads not yet traveled. Y Tu Mama Tambien is at times playful and seductive, but slowly reveals itself to be a substantive dual story involving both coming-of-age and coming-to-terms.

12. Amelie (France, 2001)
Every scene in Amelie is infused with love. Love for its characters, love for its story, and an undeniable love for life and adventure. In the film, the cute-as-a-button Audrey Tautou plays a shy, lonely French woman who plays cupid to the colorful characters in her life, performing one random act of kindness after another. But she criminally neglects her own happiness, until she finally meets a kindred spirit, that is. A (relatively) big hit upon its release, Amelie is an infectious romantic comedy that can melt even the surliest of hearts.

11. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (Romania, 2007)
This bleak drama has led the pack for the burgeoning renaissance of Romanian cinema and also enraptured the attention of nearly every film critic. It’s easy to see why. 4 Months is an uncompromising, devastating look at the ramifications of an illegal abortion. Adventurously photographed and filled with lengthy one-shot passages, the film’s daring vitality is difficult to shake long after.

10. Cache (France, 2005)
Michael Haneke’s unsettling drama is a tour de force showcase for his unparalled ability to inspire fear and paranoia in both his actors and his audience. Renowned French actors Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche play a married couple whose lives begin to crumble when mysterious (and sinister) videotapes start to appear on their doorstep. Even more terrifying, Auteuil slowly pieces together it may be related to a terrible secret from his past. Taut, tense and electrifying, Cache is a deeply disturbing and endlessly fascinating.

9. Amores Perros (Mexico, 2000)
Looking back on it, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s directorial debut turned out to be supremely influential. Amores Perros was the first of his so-called “Death Trilogy” (alongside 21 Grams and Babel), and set the precedent for his time-bending, anthology-format brand of storytelling. The film hinges on one singular car accident that has a ripple effect in several people’s lives, illuminated by three separate stories populated by an array of impressive Mexican actors (including Gael Garcia Bernal), with the the seemingly-contradictory story of a sympathetic hit man being the most moving of the bunch.

8. The Lives of Others (Germany, 2006)
One of the rare recent Best Foreign Film Oscar winners that’s actually deserving of its title (even if it did beat the instant-classic Pan’s Labyrinth), The Lives of Others is a suspenseful and thought-provoking political thriller set in 1980s-era Germany when secret police dictated a citizen’s right to privacy. The late, great German actor Ulrich Muhe provides the key to the film’s success: his flawless performance bravely illuminated the guilt and the inner turmoil of a man struggling between what is right and what is expected.

7. In the Mood for Love (China, 2001)
Wong Kar-Wai had to be on this list. And it had to be for In the Mood For Love, one of the celebrated auteur’s most accomplished efforts. Iconic (and endlessly photogenic) stars Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung play two separately-married people who suspect their spouses are having an affair with each other. Of course, that inevitably leads to a steamy affair with each other. Filled with sumptuous costumes, dazzling cinematography and wistful moments of romance and longing, In the Mood for Love is a quiet stunner.

6. Spirited Away (Japan, 2001)
Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki perfectly exemplifies what happens when adults never lose their childlike curiosity and sense of wonderment. Beautifully animated, it’s the crowning achievement in his filmography thus far, a dreamlike (and at times, frightening) adventure about a young girl who discovers an alternate reality filled with some rather fantastical inhabitants. (And, in typical Miyazaki form, an epic battle between good and evil). A Disney film like no other, Spirited Away is a triumph for the imagination.

5. Talk to Her (Spain, 2002)
Talk to Her is Pedro Almodovar’s masterpiece (trumping even 1999’s near-perfect All About My Mother). Loneliness is the major character in this film, an amalgamation of interwoven stories about the absence and/or abundance of intimacy in a series of relationships, how people cling to human contact in the most desperate and dire of situations. The film deservedly netted Almodovar an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, a fitting tribute to a voice that has become one of the leading and, yes, most original in movies today.

4. City of God (Brazil, 2003)
When the 2004 Oscar nominations were announced, many were shocked that a tiny Brazilian film called City of God nabbed four, including an out-of-nowhere nomination for its first-time director Fernando Meirelles. In retrospect, the nominations were one of those baffling rare moments of clarity by the Academy which deservedly shine the spotlight on a film that deserved the attention. But Meirelles’ masterwork needs no awards to earn its place in film history. Universally acclaimed for its stark, visceral honesty in depicting organized crime in Rio de Janeiro, the film is the best kind of masterpiece: one that comes from an unproven talent in the unlikeliest of places.

3. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (France, 2007)
In 1995, French journalist Jean-Dominique Bauby suffered a horrific stroke that left his entire body paralyzed in what doctors call the “locked-in syndrome.” In a remarkable testament to the human spirit, Bauby was able to dictate a 132-page memoir by blinking his left eye. Incredibly, ace-auteur Julian Schnabel adapted that memoir into a breathtaking, lyrical, haunting film that is as much his creation as Bauby’s. (Kudos to the Academy for recognizing Schnabel’s brilliance with a Best Director nomination.) The Diving Bell is not only a testament to the human spirit, but to the power of cinema as well.

2. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (China, 2001)
Ang Lee’s Oscar-winning epic is not only the highest-grossing foreign film ever, but also happens to be yet another foreign film that changed the cinematic landscape: a kung fu flick with heart and soul. Chow Yun-Fat, Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi play 19th-century warriors whose loyalty and vitality are tested by a series events that lead each to contemplate their life’s decisions. Beyond the entracing and lyrical storytelling, Crouching Tiger stands as a rare, beautiful beacon of hope: a foreign film that was actually universally embraced by Western audiences. Here’s to hoping that happens more often.

1. Pan’s Labyrinth (Mexico, 2006)
Perhaps the most imaginative film of the decade (foreign or otherwise), Guillermo del Toro’s Spanish fable is a triumph of storytelling and nothing short of a work of art. Simultaneously a war saga and a fairy tale, it traces the journey of a young girl and her scavenger hunt through another world to save her mother’s life, set in the midst of the Spanish civil war. Pan’s Labyrinth oozes atmosphere with its stunning cinematography and production values, all guided by del Toro’s keen artistic vision. With one out-and-out masterpiece, del Toro has cemented his position as one of this generation’s most exciting and talented visionaries.

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